Amendment 27

Skills and Post-16 Education Bill [HL] - Report (1st Day) – in the House of Lords at 6:33 pm on 12 October 2021.

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Lord Lucas:

Moved by Lord Lucas

27: Clause 7, page 7, line 32, at end insert— “(c) must specify a range of qualifications with a teaching and learning requirement equivalent to one GCSE (at level 2) and one A level (at level 3) which allow students to combine academic and vocational education.”

Photo of Lord Lucas Lord Lucas Conservative

My Lords, there are a number of other amendments in this group. I very much hope that we will pursue one or more of them to a Division if we do not get some very clear reassurances from my noble friend, because it is my conviction that BTECs should continue to be widely available for some good long time yet at least, and that the Government’s suggestion that we should quickly move to a system of A-levels and T-levels only is profoundly mistaken. I have a number of reasons for this.

First, BTECs are respected. When it comes to educational qualifications, respect is hard to gain. BTECs are respected by universities, employers and parents, and not just parents of disadvantaged children. My daughter took a BTEC, her friend took three, and my cousin took three. They are something, as editor of the Good Schools Guide, that I would happily advise a child to take. They are a well-respected qualification and to dispose of them in haste and short order is profoundly un-Conservative. I very much hope that my new colleagues in the department will share that view.

I am very grateful to the department for sharing its reasoning with us. Broadly, as I understand it—my noble friend will doubtless correct me if I am wrong—it is that, looking at the people who take BTECs and comparing them with similar people who take A-levels, the people who take BTECs have a higher drop-out rate at university, and those who stay at university go on to learn less than equivalent pupils who take A-levels. That analysis is deeply statistically unsound. I will explain why.

A definitive and careful choice is made by a pupil and the people advising them as to whether they should go down the A-level or BTEC route. It is not a question of random allocation. Unless you really analyse what is going on in that process of differentiation, you absolutely cannot legitimately statistically compare the subsequent path of the two groups. You can remark on and look at them, but to compare them and say that one is therefore better than the other is not something you can do because you do not have the data to understand what that process of differentiation was. They are two different groups. They are swallows and crows—both birds, but to compare them is just to describe. It is not something you can draw conclusions from.

Nor is that the only point at which these two streams have different processes applied to them. When it comes to applying to university, they receive advice as to which course they should take at which university. The quality of that advice might well differ markedly for people taking BTECs as opposed to people taking A-levels. It certainly differs markedly between institutions. When, a few years ago, I was working with HESA statistics it was quite remarkable how drop-outs focused on the products of particular institutions rather than particular types of students or courses they were going for. So there is a second point at which this stream is different, which destroys the ability to compare.

Then there is what happens at universities. Universities are supposed, under their access policies, to support students from disadvantaged backgrounds. It is quite clear that they have not been doing this properly. I am delighted that the OfS is picking them up on this, but universities have not been looking at how they make the best of a student and give them the best possible outcome. They have been providing them with a relatively standard product and seeing how they get on with it.

Students who take BTECs are likely to have a different set of requirements in terms of teaching and support from students who take A-levels, so the differentiation may be entirely down to the practices of universities in not supporting BTEC students properly. That means that you cannot tell what is going on. The department is using this data to evince the reasons for its proposals on BTECs, but the data applies to the old pattern BTECs only—those that existed before the 2016 reforms. The new BTECs were specifically designed to deal with the worries people had about how BTEC students were doing at university. All the changes made to BTECs in the first teaching in 2016 were directed at helping students do better at university, but there is as yet no data available on how those students do at university. There were big changes—it is a different qualification in many ways—but the Government are treating it as if they can apply the data from the old qualification.

There is then another set of data which the Government do not seem to have applied themselves to: the data that comes before the surge in popularity of BTECs. The data for disadvantaged students in 2013-15 shows that almost all of them took A-levels and there was a huge rate of dropout, because these were not suitable for them. Go on a few years and there was a much lower school dropout rate because BTECs were holding these students in school. That does not seem to have been taken into the Government’s calculations. The department talks of getting these students back to doing A-levels, but we used to do that, and it had terrible results. Why does it want to do that again?

I am somewhat in despair at the quality of the DfE’s analysis of why it wants to do away with BTECs quickly. However, its analysis does suggest a test; it suggests that we should look at how new qualifications do when they have run their course and students have got to the point of being in employment. We can then judge how well they are doing. If we look at 2019-21 as the sample cohort for the new BTECs, we should have a reasonable idea of that by 2027. We should have a reasonable idea of how well T-levels are doing by 2029 or 2030.

That gives us a timescale for when we will have legitimate data to compare how T-levels and BTECs have done, if the Government are doing proper research—I do not know that they are—on how decisions are taken as to which qualification is provided, how pupils with the qualifications are supported at university and on careers advice given to different groups of students. All of that is necessary to take a justified decision about which set of qualifications should be provided.

I hope I am right in quoting the Government as saying that T-levels are the best option for 16 to 19 year-olds. How can they possibly know that? These qualifications have only just been created—they are newborn. The emperor’s second wife always wants to kill the older children. It is a natural thing, but we really should not allow that. We ought to insist on a proper period of comparison to find out how they work out. I think the answer will turn out to be that we need not two qualifications but three: A, B and T. We want parity of esteem. If the system has just A-levels and T-levels, we will lose parity of esteem.

I would never, as editor of the Good Schools Guide, advise a child to do a T-level unless they were so clearly committed—at age 16—to the narrow scope of that T-level that they could legitimately take such a decision. There are not many 16 year-olds who are so clear and focused that they can reasonably take that decision. It is really hard to commit yourself to a single, narrow line which leads you away from the generality of university and towards a specific career. There are children for whom this will work, but there are fewer of them than the Government think, and there are an awful lot who need to be kept more general.

A-level years are too narrow anyway; we need to broaden them out for people. There are advocates for maths to age 18 and various other streams which are trying to broaden A-levels—narrowing will not work. In any event, producing that extraordinary gap between the breadth and choice in A-levels and the narrowness of a T-level will entrench the division between academic and vocational qualifications. To take a vocational qualification is to commit yourself to a different life at 16. There will be a push against that by parents.

If you have BTECs in the mix, you can hedge that decision. You can go a bit towards vocational, sliding down that route, knowing that BTECs can get you back to university. With that option in the mix, you start to get a much more coherent package and T-levels and BTECs can find their own level.

There are also real problems with T-levels in local provision. How do you provide T-levels on the south coast, where I live, in industries which just do not exist there? The requirement of 45 days of real work experience is not something you can provide in breadth. You can teach a BTEC in the same subject, but you cannot do the T-level. Maybe the T-level will change, but we are not there yet.

There is absolutely no argument that there are too many BTECs. There are only 30-odd of them, and they are easily comprehensible to parents and schools. There is not a vast number of them, unlike pure vocational qualifications. There is no legitimate argument down that route.

For all those reasons, we should tell the Government, by making an amendment to this Bill, that we ought to keep BTECs for a good long time.

Photo of Lord Watson of Invergowrie Lord Watson of Invergowrie Shadow Spokesperson (Education) 6:45, 12 October 2021

My Lords, I will speak to Amendments 28, 29 and 30 in my name plus, very briefly, Amendments 32 and 33, to which I have added my name.

The Government are undertaking significant reform to level 3 qualifications and that is an aim that we certainly support in principle. For too long, there have been far too many qualifications. These have not only confused young people but have not been recognised by employers, who often have no means of gauging their worth.

The Government’s vision is for A-levels and T-levels to form the main further education level 3 qualifications in England and to sit alongside apprenticeships. Funding for other current post-GCSE options, including most BTECs, which are characterised by the Government as “low-quality qualifications”, will be removed from the system by 2025. The move to introduce T-levels, a recommendation of the 2016 review led by my noble friend Lord Sainsbury—I think I am allowed to refer to him as such, even though he has now retired from your Lordships’ House—is one that we welcome and very much want to see succeed.

However, the Government seem intent on introducing a binary system of academic and technical pathways, where students progress to employment, or further study, only via A-levels or the newly created T-levels. The reforms include the defunding of the vast majority of applied general qualifications, including BTECs. They do not appear to have considered the impact of defunding these qualifications on widening access to higher education and on social mobility—or social justice as we in Labour prefer to call it. We have just seen a new social mobility tsar appointed and it would certainly be interesting to know her views on this issue, particularly given her experience as a headteacher.

Yesterday, again at the 11th hour—Minister, please note—we received from the DfE an additional briefing on BTECs and applied general qualifications. In it, the DfE conceded that responses to the consultation highlighted that A-levels and T-levels alone would not meet the needs of all students, and it went on to explain:

“We will give funding approval to qualifications supporting progression to specialist HE courses in areas which are not covered by T Levels and not well-served by A levels as alternative programmes of study to A levels, such as those in performing and creative arts.”

Evidence around BTECs suggests that, while they generally provide positive impacts for students in terms of progression to higher education, wage returns and employment, those benefits are generally exceeded by those with A-levels. I suppose that that was to be expected, but it is not a reason to close down that route for those who did not find A-levels an appropriate option, for whatever reason. We would argue that it is the destination that matters, not the mode of travel to it. Accessing higher education will always have a value, and the greater the number of young people who do so, the better, surely.

Ofqual has also stated its concerns about the proposed new system. In its response to the 2020 review of post-16 qualifications at level 3 in England, it said, in relation to the risks to progression to higher education:

“We recognise the potential benefits for all learners at level 3 from the proposed reforms … in recognising the benefits, we must also remain alert to the potential adverse impacts that these reforms may risk.”

The DfE’s own consultation impact assessment estimated that the qualifications that may no longer be funded could account for around 62% of current non-A-level 16 to 19 year-old enrolments at level 3, yet we know that the number of learners using qualifications other than A-levels to access higher education is in fact growing.

The DfE document referred to earlier—the one that appeared yesterday—contained six evidence sources, but that list did not include the National Education Opportunities Network at the University of West London, which has an unrivalled reputation for supporting widening access to HE. It published a report in February this year that contained a raft of evidence from universities, many of them in the Russell group, with 70% of respondents saying that BTECs prepared students for higher education study as well as, or better than, A-levels. The teaching and assessment style of the BTEC was seen to be particularly good at preparing students to enter more vocationally oriented HE courses.

The conclusion was that BTECs are essential to widening access to higher education, although it is only fair to say that this view is not universally accepted. But, until T-levels become fully established, which, I repeat, we very much want to see, more BTECs than the Government currently plan for need to be retained.

I accept that it is not helpful if BTECs overlap with T-levels and that that could delay their becoming fully entrenched. But while there is a risk, as highlighted by the NEON survey to which I referred, that a substantial proportion of students from the neighbourhoods with the lowest participation rate may not enter higher education under the proposed new system, that is a risk that the Government should weigh very carefully.

The most likely outcome is that around five years’ progress in increasing the numbers of students entering higher education from the neighbourhoods with the lowest participation rate will be lost by the defunding of BTECs. It is almost certain that the proportion of students entering higher education who are from black and Asian backgrounds will decrease.

The DfE document also did not refer to research published by the Social Market Foundation in 2018 showing that students accepted to university from working-class backgrounds and/or minority-ethnic backgrounds are more likely to hold a BTEC qualification than their peers. The foundation’s report said that a quarter of Asian students and 37% of black students were accepted to university after completing only BTEC qualifications at level 3.

On the basis of the evidence in these reports, the Government are strongly urged to reconsider the timescale of their plans to defund applied general qualifications. If the Minister can explain how doing so will not have a negative impact on widening access to higher education and social mobility, I am sure that noble Lords would be most interested to hear that argument.

I turn to the amendments in my name. Amendment 28 requires the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education, hitherto referred to as IfATE, to consult and gain the consent of the relevant employer representative bodies before withdrawing course approval. The Government are intent on making the employer representative bodies all-powerful in their areas, which suggests that they, as organisations, would not want decisions taken that cut across their ability to pursue local priorities for qualifications. I accept that there is a danger that a BTEC defunded in one area could remain available in another. That is certainly not ideal, but if local characteristics are to hold sway, it is an issue that can be accommodated, provided that these BTECs do not overlap with T-levels.

Amendment 29 calls for a four-year moratorium on IfATE withdrawing approval and thus defunding BTECs and other level 3 courses. This would prevent removal before 2025, rather than the Government’s ambition of achieving this by 2025. This is a reflection of concerns that it will take some time, as I have said, for T-levels to become embedded and more widely understood and accepted by students, universities, colleges and employers. This is a real issue in the current economic climate, as T-level students are required to complete 315 hours or 45 days of work placements. Many employers have warned that they may not be able to commit to that, given the challenges they are facing, as evidenced by their ability to provide the necessary current work experience placements for T-levels in the health and social care, digital and construction sectors.

There is no mechanism in the Bill for a provider, or a student or prospective student for that matter, to challenge an IfATE decision to withdraw course approval. This is all the more concerning, given that we do not yet know how IfATE will make the decision on which courses to withdrawal approval for. The DfE has referred to course duplication between T-levels and BTECs, and some courses have been labelled “low value” without reference to an objective established measure of quality, applied across the board.

Amendment 30 would therefore allow someone to challenge the lawfulness of the decision to withdraw approval through a judicial review. For example, IfATE’s decision could be overturned on the grounds of procedural unfairness if the process leading up to the decision were improper—perhaps simply biased in favour of T-levels over BTECs—or incompatible with human rights under the Human Rights Act 1998, which could come into play, given the issue of BTECs widening participation and/or ethnic minority entry. This links with Amendment 32, which would make it much less likely that a judicial review would be necessary.

Finally, Amendment 33, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, has our support because we believe that it would put in place a safety net to guard against the issue surrounding the defunding of some BTECs that I have outlined.

If the Government really do want to level up, they need to slow down this major reform and recognise the risks posed to thousands of young people. We are big supporters of T-levels because they have the potential to improve the reputation and standing of technical education, if they are implemented properly, alongside other qualifications.

As the Association of Colleges has said:

“We don’t need a strong-armed approach to force change, that change will happen.”

The Government’s approach risks leaving thousands of disadvantaged students with limited or no routes to progress into work or continuing education when they need them most, and that is an outcome the Government will surely want to avoid.

Photo of Lord Baker of Dorking Lord Baker of Dorking Conservative

My Lords, this is the first time that I have engaged on Report, and I gather that I have to speak to the various amendments I have supported. I certainly strongly support the one that has just been dealt with, and I will also speak to Amendments 30 and 31.

That amendment would delay the whole implementation of the Bill by four years. I will explain why that is necessary. The Bill is one of the most extraordinary Bills that has been laid before Parliament because it has no policy in it. It sets up two administrative procedures, one to deal with a statement that appeared in the White Paper on education and one to deal with a paper that appeared out of the blue on 1 January this year, on abolishing thousands of technical qualifications, which was totally unexpected. The Bill sets up a framework.

As regards the White Paper qualification, a framework of employer representative bodies was set up to prepare skill plans for each of the towns where the employers live, which is a very interesting idea. It is a bit experimental, but it means that local industry could get involved in setting the curriculum for Darlington, Newcastle, Plymouth or Exeter, and that is a good thing. It engages industry, which determines what technical subjects it needs. The various bodies that do the training, like the FE colleges, the apprenticeship providers, the private providers and the colleges that I support, such as the technical colleges, can then adjust their curricula accordingly.

The second policy that is not in the Bill appeared on 1 January this year, when the Government issued a paper on technical qualifications. This was totally unexpected: there has been nothing in a White Paper and no research on it—I am very interested to know what they will do—but they set out their policy.

This is an unconstitutional enormity. All the other Bills that I have known in my 50 years in the two Houses of Parliament have always had policy in them so that it can be debated, amended, argued about, voted on, passed or rejected. It is very difficult to do that with this Bill because none of the details is on the face of the Bill. I will quote precisely what the Government’s policy is according to their statement on 1 January this year, when they opened consultation:

“It is our intention that technical qualifications which overlap with T Levels in these waves will have funding approval removed from the start of the 2023/24 academic year” and it will continue into 2024-25. Well, there are several thousand technical qualifications. The first thing to appreciate is that the Department for Education in his history since the 1870s has never created one technical qualification. That has been left to the exam boards. The department has no real knowledge of the contents of technical qualifications and has never had to create them. It has a profound knowledge of academic qualifications, but none of technical qualifications.

The other extraordinary thing is that the body that the Government have appointed to be the executioner of all these qualifications is the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education, which has had no dealings whatever with technical qualifications. It does not do them; it does apprenticeships. That itself is bizarre. We are dealing with very large numbers here; 200,000 students took these technical qualifications earlier this year. These are BTECs and diplomas. There were 100,000 diplomas and extended diplomas and 100,000 BTECs. The report was issued on 15 July, a very good day to publish the results of a six-month consultation, being the day when all the schools and colleges were closing for the summer. It is unbelievable that there has been no comment whatever in the general press, or even in the education press, about the policy, and so your Lordships are hearing about it for the first time.

The consultation had a lot of respondents, who were very frank. The report said that 86% of the respondents

“disagreed with the approach to removing funding approval for qualifications”.

All of them—businesses, colleges, schools and teachers—were ignored, so you cannot say that this is a listening Government. They are an assertive Government. The whole consultation process was complete rubbish. They just restated their starting point.

Why was this all being done? It was being done because the Government have introduced a new exam—the T-level. I say at once that this could be a very good exam, but it is in its early days. They want to ensure that T-levels will survive, so therefore they want to destroy every competing qualification within two years, in 2023 and 2024.

What do we know about T-levels? Two of the university technical colleges that I am responsible for decided experimentally to teach T-levels last September. The one in Dartford decided to teach skills; the one in Telford decided to teach construction. Curricula were provided for the T-levels. What did we learn? We learned that T-levels are not remotely suitable for people who get GCSE grades of 5, 4, 3, 2 and 1. They simply could not cope with T-levels. The students who can cope with T-levels are those at levels 9, 8 and 7—the top end, basically, the brightest children. Certainly, those with grades 9 and 8, and probably most with grade 7, could cope but at level 6 some coped and some could not. The Dartford UTC is doing skills. Eight students applied. The students must apply; if they do not apply, they will not be taught. After a fortnight, two dropped out, unable to cope.

This was a bit disappointing, but we will not know until August 2022 who passed or failed. I cannot tell you. I suspect some will have failed and some will have passed. Some might just have failed, and some might just have passed. We do not know about that at all. How many people took these T-levels as an experiment? I am told that it is fewer than 1,000—600 or 700—but every time I have asked anybody in the department, they have said that they do not have the figures. I am not asking the Minister to give the figures tonight.

By the way, I should have begun my remarks by congratulating the Minister on becoming a parliamentary under-secretary in the Department for Education. I have enjoyed the meetings that I have had with her so far. Sometimes we agree, sometimes we disagree, but we do it very pleasantly. It is very nice to have a pleasant parliamentary under-secretary and I wish her well.

Coming back to where we are, we will not know until the autumn of next year how successful T-levels have been. This September, more T-levels were taught. I asked again how many have started them. We are half way through the term and no one will tell me. I do not know whether it is a few hundred or a few thousand. I have no idea. I would also like to know whether the ones who have started have secured promises of 45 days’ work experience over two years, because one of the qualifications needed to take a T-level is that you must have 45 days of work experience. That is a very demanding level. Medium-sized and small companies cannot possibly provide that level; perhaps only a handful of large companies can.

Given the millions of students that we have, this is a very modest start for a trial of an exam. For the ones who started in September of this year, we will not have the results until August 2023, the year in which the Government propose to cull a large number of alternative qualifications without even knowing the outcome of the second year’s trial. This is educationally totally and utterly unacceptable.

As I have said, this is a constitutional enormity. The report is very frank. It goes on to assess the impact of the proposals, which is very substantial. One of my purposes in speaking tonight is to put the words on record, because most people have not read anything about this, and I suspect that what I am saying is completely new to your Lordships.

As the Government are going to abolish most BTECs, they have to have something for all those 250,000 students who took them, so they have created a thing called a “small BTEC” of just one specialist subject. They say the students who used to take BTECs can do just this one. This means that a 16 year-old joining an FE college from his school, having done no technical training at all below 16, will, with a bit of luck, get a qualification at level 2—a sort of GCSE in a technical matter. That is good; that will get him a job somewhere. A smaller number might just get to level 3, which is A-level, but not all that many. That will not get them into a university at all.

So, in the future, youngsters who leave school and go into technical education will be able to take just one BTEC. But listen to this:

“It will be important to prevent students taking combinations of … qualifications designed to be taken alongside A levels that would effectively replicate” the larger programmes of extended diplomas. That means they are not allowed to take a second BTEC; the Government have said that they are not allowed to. This is the first time in the history of education since 1870 that we have created a qualification and said to a student that they cannot take a second one. These are the words from the documents that came out. In effect, this is educational lockdown. They are committed to one and cannot take two. But I remind your Lordships that 80% of black students who go to university do it by taking two BTECs. In the future, they will not be accepted into university if they do not have two BTECs, and they will not be allowed to go.

This becomes even graver:

“Large academic qualifications”— such as the diploma and extended diploma—

“larger than one A level … will not be funded if they overlap with T levels or A levels.”

The diplomas are very important. A diploma is taken post-16 and is called a level 4 higher national certificate, then there is the extended diploma at level 5. These are two steps to university, and university could be level 6. But these particular subjects will now be very difficult to follow. So you have a most extraordinary arrangement: a whole lot of students can take one BTEC and not get much to level 3. They will be denied taking two and going to university—many go into university that way—because T-levels are going to replace them.

One of the things we have learned in our experiment with T-levels is that the curriculum for them is very clear: it is only 25% practical and 75% academic. The Government say in the paper that these exams must be taught in the classroom. They are technical qualifications taught in a classroom, not in a workshop or a working environment. I will tell noble Lords what happened this year in one of the UTCs we sponsor in Tower Hamlets. It is sponsored by a very famous school called Mulberry. All Secretaries of State are taken to it because it is about 90% Bangladeshi girls. The head came to us and said, “I want to create a UTC for the less bright, but really I want to get them jobs”. Three years ago we started one and it has been highly successful. It has only two specialisms: health and the creative arts. For the creative arts it works with the National Theatre, and in health it does health and social care. To teach health and social care in this UTC, it creates a hospital ward instead of the some of the classrooms so that the students can go in and see what the nurses’ duties are, what records they have to keep, what equipment is available for them and how frequently they visit the patient. That is practical. T-levels will not do that; they all have to be taught in the classroom, not in a working environment.

Turning to the results from this particular UTC, 5.96% of those born in Tower Hamlets go to university. In the July before last we had 79 leavers from that UTC and 80% of them went to university, mainly to do health. That is good technical and practical education. That is real social mobility: moving children from an area where 40% of the houses have English only as a second language. To go from 5.96% to 80% shows that this is very good technical education, and I really do not see how T-levels can replicate that as they are currently planned.

But it gets a bit worse, I am afraid.

Noble Lords:


Photo of Lord Baker of Dorking Lord Baker of Dorking Conservative

It can get worse, you know.

I am quoting from the documents so that they are on the record, so that when MPs see it they know I am not making this up. This is real stuff. Listen to this:

“We have recognised the need for additional qualifications alongside A levels and T Levels, including small qualifications designed to be taken as part of a study programme including A levels. However, we recognise that students who traditionally take” things such as diplomas, two BTECs or extended diplomas

“tend to have achieved lower GCSE grades than their peers who progress onto A level study. They are also more likely to be Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic students, have SEND and have received free school meals.”

So the Government admit in this impact document that one of the consequences of this is that the following people will suffer: black, Asian and minority ethnic students, those with SEND and those who have received free meals. They will not actually have much of a chance of going to university. This is a disgraceful and shaming statement to put into any public document.

It gets worse: those from

“Asian and black ethnic backgrounds are more likely to be affected by the proposals, as they are particularly strongly represented on qualifications expected to no longer be available in the future.”

It then does disabled students and disability, with

“these students being more strongly negatively impacted by being unable to achieve level 3 in the reformed landscape.”

So disabled students are going to be disadvantaged in this reformed landscape. Scrap the blasted landscape! It is absolutely disgusting. Quite frankly, I am very ashamed that a Conservative Government have done this. What they are denying to lots of people—black, Asian, ethnic minority, disadvantaged and disabled students—is hope and aspiration.

The Conservative Party at the moment has been accused of abandoning lots of the things it has traditionally lived by. One of the things it has lived by is improvement in education. With respect to my own family, my grandfather left school at 12, and my father left elementary school at 16 and studied all sorts of other things to get on, leave and eventually become a senior civil servant. That is what Conservatives believe in—hope and aspiration—yet this denies hope and aspiration. As Browning said, the reach should exceed the grasp,

“Or what’s a heaven for?”

They are denied that reach. This is a shaming thing. I am very ashamed that a Conservative Government could do it, and all I can say to your Lordships is that I apologise for the Government.

Photo of Baroness Garden of Frognal Baroness Garden of Frognal Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

My Lords, I was going to say it is always a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Baker, but actually it is an extremely daunting task after that magnificent speech.

I shall speak to my Amendment 32 and add my support to Amendments 27, 28 and 33, to which I have added my name. But I support all the amendments in this group, which, as has been so powerfully set out by the noble Lord, Lord Baker, address a key concern over the Government’s policies on technical—or can I still say vocational?—qualifications.

I remind the House of my interests as a vice-president of City & Guilds, an organisation for which I worked for 20 years on practical, work-based technical and craft qualifications. BTEC broke away from City & Guilds in the 1970s, originally separating the business from the technical as BEC and TEC, but then coming together to offer both types of qualifications, particularly but not exclusively for secondary schools and further education colleges. Over nearly half a century, BTEC has built a reputation which is recognised, understood and valued—or, as the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, said, respected—by candidates, employers and academia.

It would be an act of extreme folly and damage for the Government to undermine, let alone cease to fund, a set of qualifications which have had a profound influence on the work skills of the country, especially, as the noble Lord, Lord Baker, pointed out, for disadvantaged groups, and especially at a time when the country needs all the skills it can muster. We need skilled people to replace all the skilled workers which Brexit has seen return to their countries of origin. Do you know, I do not remember seeing that in the Leave campaign materials: “Vote Leave and be deprived of all the skilled workers you need.” We have shortages of farm workers, HGV drivers and butchers. My grandfather was a butcher. He had no problems in those far-off days in encouraging young people into an essential and respected trade.

Successive Governments’ relentless focus on universities and academia has led to a generation believing that actually doing things is less worthy than thinking things. We must urgently work to address the academic superiority which has so beset this nation for generations.

This Government have invented T-levels. Previous Governments, academically minded, have tried to invent different sorts of vocational qualifications. We had NVQs, which were going to be the vocational qualification to end all vocational qualifications—they were brilliant. We had GNVQs, we had CPVE. I looked after CPVE for a while. It was a brilliant secondary school practical programme. It was done away with by the academic superiority, who said that it lacked intellect. We had diplomas. They were all designed to break through this country’s unwillingness actually to do and make things. T-levels are untried and untested and will pose real problems, particularly, as has been mentioned, in the work element.

In proposing those shiny new toys, the Government chose to ignore City & Guilds and BTEC, with well over a century of expertise. They need now to put their weight behind those schemes which are proven and to encourage candidates to work with colleges and employers to fulfil their potential and fill the skilled jobs which are so crucial to the country’s well-being, indeed to its survival as a 21st-century force for good.

I support all the amendments in this group. Mine insists that the institution must publish specified criteria before it can withdraw funding, or approval, from an existing qualification. That of the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, insists on public consultation; that of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, promotes the combination of academic and vocational education; and that of the noble Lord, Lord Watson, also calls for public consultation and the consent of employer representative bodies. On all sides of the House, we express concern that the Government’s blinkered support for their own invention threatens to undermine all that has been good and valuable in the past.

I wish the Minister well in her new post and hope that her own academic background will enable her to see just how important it is that we protect all that has been good and successful in the vocational field and support both BTEC and City & Guilds qualifications, which have been the bedrock of work-based skills for so long.

Photo of Lord Blunkett Lord Blunkett Labour

My Lords, I shall speak extremely briefly, otherwise I think we will lose the amendments that we want to support. I declare an interest, because I have assisted Pearson’s with its consultation, including attending workshops chaired by the former Conservative Skills and Apprenticeships Minister, Anne Milton.

I have never met anyone outside the DfE who thinks it a good idea to do away with BTECs. I have not met anyone who thinks it impossible to promote the quality and worth of T-levels without having to demonstrate that they must do away with, defund or have a hard stop on BTECs and associated general qualifications. It is perfectly feasible to square this circle, and that is why I have put my name to all the amendments before us. I thank my assistant, Joanna Firth, who has been liaising with noble Lords and those outside who are campaigning on this critical issue.

It would be a great shame if—perhaps I may just refer to myself here—ageing Peers did not actually protect the interests of the young people we so often talk about, the vocational qualifications and drive for good-quality vocational opportunity that we so often talk about on the back of the Augar report and beyond: if we did not tonight help the Government to help themselves. The new ministerial team will need time to absorb what is being put in front of them and what they have inherited from their predecessors. The civil servants have worked extremely hard on this aspect, including in the Bill, but—I say with some temerity —they need to avoid the syndrome I found all those years ago, which is that once people have got on a trajectory, they cannot find a way of getting themselves off it. Tonight, we have the opportunity of helping both officials and Ministers to get themselves off what could be an absolute disaster. It is not often that I offer to help the Conservative Party out of a hole, but on this occasion, it matters. If a quarter of a million-plus young people are denied a route to a good qualification simply on an ideological whim, it would be a great shame not just for them but for our economy and our nation.

At this moment, we have never needed training in vocational qualifications more; we have never needed more opportunity to succeed outside A-levels. We know that; we know the gaps; we can feel them; we have seen them in the past month, not just at petrol pumps but on the shelves, in abattoirs and other key areas, including in the steel industry in my city and beyond. We need to support T-levels as a really good opportunity to develop quality, but not position them against good quality, high-level vocational BTEC qualifications. If T-levels are good, as the noble Lord, Lord Baker, and my noble friend on the Front Bench said, they will stand on their own merits.

An interesting document was circulated for this evening’s debate. I shall quote only two bits of it. It is very interesting, as was the document to which the noble Lord, Lord Baker, referred, published on 14 July and placed in the public sphere on 15 July. Here is a question for the Government.

“Why are you defunding qualifications when we don’t yet know if T Levels will be a success?”

This is the answer:

“The government is committed to ensuring that T Levels are accessible to all”—

I stress, all—“young people”. But of course, they are not, for the reasons that the noble Lord, Lord Baker, spelled out. If you have to get a particular GCSE at level 6 or above to be able to take part in them, those who currently get levels 4 and 5 and go forward to BTEC are disqualified. We are talking here about tens of thousands of young people.

Another question that has been referred to in passing this evening in relation to this document asks, “Are you intending to defund qualifications?” The answer is that defunding qualifications that overlap A-levels and T-levels for 16 to 19 year-olds will not be affected by the Bill, because funding powers rest with the Secretary of State for Education. The noble Lord, Lord Baker, rightly referred to the fact that the Bill is policy-free. What we are trying to do tonight is ensure that there is a policy that makes the Secretary of State and, for that matter, the institute accountable to someone somewhere for their actions, so that someone somewhere actually can assess whether the measures taken are in the interests of young people and our economy. If a quarter of a million young people are likely to lose in one form or another—the most disadvantaged, as has already been spelt out—it will be a disaster for our nation.

Maybe people outside this Chamber do not give a damn. Maybe they do not understand. Maybe they are not interested, except when occasionally they pay lip service to vocational qualification. But we do. I hope that we can manage to muster sufficient people to stay tonight to ensure that key amendments are passed, so that we give the Commons the real opportunity to say whether its Members, including those in the red wall seats, really want to go back to their constituencies and tell young people that they are removing a lifeline for their future. My eldest son took a BTEC national diploma and ended up with a master’s degree. Do not deny on a whim—because one feels one has to have a hard stop—the opportunity to get this right.

Photo of Lord Willetts Lord Willetts Conservative 7:30, 12 October 2021

My Lords, I should like to speak to Amendment 33 in my name and in support of the other amendments, particularly Amendments 29 and 31. It has been a powerful debate and I shall speak briefly because the case has been made so effectively already.

I welcome the Minister to her post because I trust her to listen to the powerful points made by noble Lords from all sides of the House. I should declare my interests as the chancellor of the University of Leicester, as a visiting professor at King’s College London and as a member of the board of Thames Holdings.

I want to turn to the concern that lies behind all these amendments, which is the future of BTECs. What the debate has revealed is that the scheme of thinking—the Government’s model that lies behind their attempt to get rid of BTECs—is deeply flawed. The Government think that there should be some kind of clear divide between academic qualifications— A-levels—and vocational qualifications—T-levels—and nothing else in between. The reason why BTECs do not fit in is that they straddle that divide between vocational and academic—and that is a good thing, too. It is totally unrealistic to expect every teenager neatly to fit into one of just two specified routes.

It is good that T-levels have that breadth of appeal. The Government are clearly committed to T-levels and all of us on all sides of the House have said that we want them to succeed. However, they should succeed on their merits, not because viable alternatives are removed by government fiat. My noble friend Lord Baker spoke powerfully and, as a fellow Conservative, I believe in choice and trusting the judgment of the people. If people are choosing T-levels, that is fantastic. If they are obliged to do them because the alternatives have been removed, that is not a strong case for T-levels. They are, as we have heard, so far untried and untested, and that is why I have particular sympathy for Amendment 29, spoken to by the noble Lord, Lord Watson, asking for a four-year delay so that the evidence on their performance, so powerfully referred to by my noble friend Lord Baker, could become available.

In private, Ministers and the Government think that BTECs are not much good. That is what they really believe. They do not think that BTECs are of a high-enough standard and worry that people who have done them do not perform so well afterwards. Ministers think that they are a soft option. That argument rarely speaks its name but that is part of the thinking. However, BTECs have been reformed. There is now an external examiner and that arrangement could be strengthened. BTECs are not unimprovable but they are not so bad that they should just be abolished. When one digs deeply into the evidence that they are apparently underperforming, one sees that the real evidence is on poorer academic performance. It is actually the old standard and always the academic measure. Indeed, as we have heard powerfully, T-levels are being designed as an academic vocational qualification. Often when Ministers say BTECs are a soft option, what they are really saying is that BTECs are not an academic route like A-levels. They appeal particularly to people who have other aptitudes, people for whom we have an obligation to design suitable qualifications, and I am not convinced that T-levels are right for them.

The other argument that one hears is that there are so many vocational qualifications that we need a cull of them. However, in that jungle of vocational qualifications, BTECs stand out. They are a recognised brand and are tried and tested. They were created by Margaret Thatcher’s Government in the 1980s by the then Secretary of State for Education precisely to develop as a recognised vocational qualification, and they are now widely sat, as we have heard, by hundreds of thousands of young people and are known. Having a vocational qualification that is known, trusted and recognised is a precious thing. One does not throw away something that is well known and well recognised entirely in the belief in some experimental future alternative.

My amendment is designed to fit into the structure of the Bill, not to undermine its fundamental purpose. It says that as the Minister clearly has a power to decide funding, there should be a process of consultation before any significant decision to remove the funding of BTECs is taken. We hear all the time from Ministers about the importance of the employer voice and they are legislating to bring in new employer-representative bodies. It is therefore reasonable that these new bodies should at least be asked what they think about the abolition of BTECs.

I end on a personal note. Sometimes people associate my interests with higher education, and I am very aware of the charge that we must not design an education policy solely around the academic route. There is a real danger that T-levels as well as A-levels are being designed around that academic route. Imagine that the Government were proposing to remove the funding of an academic qualification—a set of A-levels sat by 100,000 or 200,000 young people. There would be absolute uproar and fury at a sudden decision that within two or three years the funding for that academic qualification was to be removed. The least we owe to young people who have a different set of aptitudes, who are taking a different route, who are being served often by FE colleges that are also entitled to a fair deal, is to treat a decision to remove the funding for the qualifications that they do as seriously as we would treat a decision to remove the funding for A-levels. That is why, as an absolute minimum, proper consultation is a prerequisite before any decision of such significance were to be taken.

Photo of Lord Adonis Lord Adonis Labour

My Lords, I think that the House wants to move towards a decision and the arguments made have been utterly compelling. The noble Lord, Lord Baker, deserves to be parliamentarian of the year for his speech alone. I have rarely heard a government policy eviscerated so comprehensively by one of the Government’s own supporters.

However, the Minister has our deep sympathy in seeking to reply. Can she point us to the actual statement of policy on which we are supposed to think that this is a good idea? I have been in search of it in the run-up to the debate because I am always in the market for evidence-based policy; after all, this is supposed to be an education Bill and one might expect that it has evidence behind it. I have searched in vain. The only statement that I could find on the policy that the Government are pursuing is in the skills White Paper of January 2021, which has one paragraph on this policy—an Orwellian paragraph because it states as fact things that have not yet even happened. I will read it to the House because it adds compelling force to the arguments of my noble friend Lord Blunkett and the noble Lords, Lord Willetts and Lord Baker.

Paragraph 63 on page 33 of the White Paper reads as follows:

“In September 2020, students across England started on the first ever T Levels.”

That is one year ago. These are some of the students in those two colleges that the noble Lord, Lord Baker, referred to. It goes on:

“The first three T Levels are in Construction, Digital, and Education & Childcare, and a further seven will be introduced in 2021.”

That is now; they are literally starting just now. We are being invited to legislate to abolish the qualifications which people sit in favour of qualifications that are only just at this moment being introduced. The Government say:

“We are proud of this programme”—

I am delighted that they are proud of the programme—

“which is based on employer-led standards and offers a prestigious technical alternative to A Levels.”

How can we know that they are a prestigious technical alternative when most of them have only just started, only a small minority have been going for a year, no candidates have yet got any of these qualifications and been able to give a view on them, and there has been no evaluation whatever? That is the sum total of the Government’s justification for this policy of unilaterally abolishing all the existing qualifications in favour of those that have not yet started.

The really compelling point was the last one made by the noble Lord, Lord Willetts. Not following the day-to-day developments in the education world, I had not realised that the Government were moving to abolish BTECs so quickly. We all support the development of T-levels, but to abolish the existing qualifications regime in this way is a truly astonishing act. He is completely right; I invite the House to imagine what would happen if the Government announced that in two years’ time, GCSEs and A-levels were going to be abolished in favour of a qualification which is only this year being piloted in schools for the first time.

When I was Minister of Education, we had to decide what to do with the Tomlinson report, which proposed to replace GCSEs and A-levels with a new 14 to 19 diploma. I strongly advised Tony Blair not to go ahead with this on the grounds that trying to run these two systems side by side—the development of a completely new diploma alongside maintaining GCSEs and A-levels—over a period of 10 to 20 years was simply unsustainable. In any case, we were being invited by Sir Mike Tomlinson, who is a friend of mine and I hold him in very high regard, on a series of assertions and nothing more, to think that a completely new qualification would outclass and—with the great English middle classes, who are very attached to the status quo—prove itself to be better than the entire existing system of education that was available then.

I can assure noble Lords that the arguments in the Tomlinson report did not get very far with Tony Blair; he certainly was not going to be the Prime Minister who announced that he was abolishing the entire existing system of GCSEs and A-levels in favour of an exam which had not even been introduced then. But that is precisely what is happening at the moment in respect of vocational qualifications. My noble friend Lord Blunkett brought up the social aspect, as did the noble Lord, Lord Baker—his closing remarks on the impact of this reform on students from black and ethnic minority communities and disabled students were literally breathtaking in their import.

We would not dream—least of all a Conservative Government, but I do not believe a Labour Government would either—of announcing in advance the abolition of the entire system of academic qualifications in favour of a new regime which had not even been properly designed, let alone tested. That is precisely what is happening in respect of vocational qualifications under the policy announced by the Government and taken forward by the Bill, and we need the biggest possible majority behind the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, and these other amendments, so that the Government are invited to think again.

Photo of Baroness Barran Baroness Barran The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

I thank all noble Lords for their powerful contributions on this group and I will attempt to set out again our measures in relation to technical educational qualifications. I underline that our ambition with these changes is for a technical education system that is directly rooted in the needs of the workplace. Our reforms will raise the quality of technical qualifications and give young people and adults the skills they need to progress into skilled employment.

Assertions were made repeatedly during the debate that the Government are scrapping all BTECs. With the greatest respect to your Lordships, that is simply not correct. We will fund level 3 BTECs and/or other applied general qualifications or similar qualifications where there is a clear need for skills and knowledge that T-levels and A-levels cannot provide, but any qualification that is funded needs to meet quality criteria, which I am sure your Lordships would agree with, to be approved for funding. More broadly, level 2 BTECs are not part of this legislation and will be consulted on later this year. It is important to set that point straight.

The amendments tabled by my noble friends Lord Lucas and Lord Baker seek to ensure that the institute’s activities will allow for mixed academic and technical programmes and, through my noble friend Lord Baker’s amendment, other large programmes that are not T-levels or A-levels. Our reforms will make sure that every qualification—

Photo of Baroness Barran Baroness Barran The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

Oh, I am so sorry, I will try to speak a little louder; forgive me. Our reforms will make sure that every qualification has a clear and distinct purpose so that learners attain the skills they need to succeed in high-quality higher education or to progress into skilled employment.

We set out the qualifications we intend to fund alongside A-levels and T-levels in the summer. I can assure noble Lords that we will fund a small range of high-quality qualifications at level 3, including some BTECs, that could typically be taken alongside A-levels if they meet our new approval criteria. These are qualifications with practical and applied elements, in areas such as STEM and IT, which support progression to high-quality higher education. For example, a student may choose to undertake an applied qualification in health and social care alongside A-levels in biology and psychology.

We will also fund larger qualifications that support progression to higher education in subject areas less well served by A-levels and where there is no T-level; for example, in the performing arts. These are not qualifications designed to relate to specific occupations and so will fall outside the institute’s remit, but we do expect them to include some BTECs.

In addition, we will fund technical qualifications which support the development of competence in occupations that are not currently covered by T-levels, where they meet the approval criteria. For example, this could include areas such as travel and tourism or training to be a blacksmith; these will be within the institute’s remit. Employers must play an active role in the technical qualifications system. The institute places the independent view of employers at the heart of its activity. It is important that the institute has discretion in its activity so that it can respond to the changing needs of the labour market.

Both my noble friends raised important points of detail about the data that we use to compare BTECs and A-levels and the specific rules around taking a second BTEC, the environment in which T-levels are taught, and the background to the recent policy announcement. If I may, in the interests of time, I will give responses and clarification to those points because there were possibly some misunderstandings, which I can address in a letter.

Amendments 28 and 33 from the noble Lord, Lord Watson, and my noble friend Lord Willetts, would require public consultation and the consent of employer representative bodies before institute approval is withdrawn, or before funding is withdrawn where a qualification no longer has institute approval. Institute approval is a mark of quality and currency with business and industry, showing that employers demand employees who have obtained that qualification. I hope that in some way that reassures my noble friend Lord Willetts and the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, both of whom referred—my words, not theirs—to a certain academic snobbery about technical qualifications. This is not about academic snobbery but about what employers have told us they need and value. Approval would be withdrawn when a qualification no longer meets the criteria against which it is approved and no longer delivers the outcomes that employers need.

The institute will actively involve employers when making decisions, including through its route panels. These panels hold national sector expertise and expert knowledge of occupational standards which have portability across employers. The requirement for a public consultation and consent from employer representative bodies, which are not designed to give input on individual qualifications, is therefore unnecessary.

Amendment 29 from the noble Lord, Lord Watson, seeks to delay withdrawal of level 3 qualifications for four years. It is vital in a fast-moving and high-tech economy that we close the gap between what people study and the needs of employers. That is why we are introducing more than 20 T-levels in 2023 and strengthening other routes to progress into skilled employment or further study.

The number of T-level providers is already growing quickly, from 43 providers in the first year to over 100 delivering in year 2, 188 in total by 2022, and significantly more by 2023, when we allow a greater range of providers to start delivery. We are looking carefully at where students currently take qualifications that may be withdrawn to ensure that relevant T-levels and sufficient numbers of industry placements are available in those areas. I know that both points were of concern to your Lordships this evening. I want to be clear that we will not leave learners without access to the technical qualifications that they and employers need during this transition phase.

We have provided significant support to help providers get ready for T-levels and will continue to do so. This includes £165 million to support industry placements, and over £250 million has been made available in capital funding and the T-level professional development programme, available to all staff teaching T-levels.

T-levels raise the quality bar for technical education. They are co-designed with over 250 leading employers and based on employer-led occupational standards. We have tried to learn the lessons from the past, when new, high-quality programmes, such as the 14-to-19 diplomas, failed because they were added to the market without the removal of competing qualifications. We want as many young people as possible to benefit from T-levels, which is why it is important for us to proceed at pace.

Photo of Lord Adonis Lord Adonis Labour

Did the noble Baroness just say—I think the House was slightly surprised by that remark—that it was mistake not to have abolished GCSEs and A-levels because that might have led to the development of a 14-to-19 diploma?

Photo of Baroness Barran Baroness Barran The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

I am happy to write to the noble Lord to clarify the background to that but my understanding is that there were quality programmes, such as the 14-to-19 diploma, which did not gain traction, which I am sure the noble Lord would accept. I suggest that in part, that was because other qualifications were not removed.

Photo of Baroness Barran Baroness Barran The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

Perhaps the noble Lord will allow me to proceed.

Amendment 30 from the noble Lord, Lord Watson, seeks to confirm that the decision to withdraw approval from a technical qualification may be subject to judicial review. I assure your Lordships that the institute is a public authority and its decisions can be reviewed by the courts in the same way as the decisions of any other public authority.

Amendment 32 from the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, would require the institute to publish in advance the criteria which must be met before withdrawing approval of a technical education qualification. It is absolutely right that the institute should publish information so that awarding bodies know in advance the matters the institute will take into account. The Bill already provides for this in new Section A2D6(4).

As I said, approval will be withdrawn when a qualification no longer meets the criteria against which it was approved; for example, where it fails to keep pace with the relevant occupational standard, which will evolve with industrial advances. Specifying criteria that must be met for withdrawal—in addition to criteria that must continue to be met for a qualification to retain approval—would result in duplication and will remove the flexibility the institute requires to meet employer needs.

A number of questions were asked regarding the impact of T-levels on social mobility. Again, if I may, I will set out our position in more detail. However, I would like to be clear that the Government are absolutely committed to levelling up. Social mobility is clearly an integral part of this and education, skills and careers are vital to making a success of those efforts. We believe that T-levels represent a much-needed step change in the quality of the technical offer. As we have heard, they have the endorsement of employers, and alongside T-levels we have introduced the T-level transition programme to support students who are not yet ready to start a T-level at 16 but who have the potential to progress to one. We have also introduced flexibility for SEND learners across all elements of the T-level programme.

In conclusion, our reforms to post-16 qualifications aim to ensure that we will have a system where the choices are clear and learners can be assured that every option is of high quality, whether it supports progression to higher education or to skilled employment. Extending the role of the institute will make certain that the majority of technical qualifications available in England are based on employer-led occupational standards and deliver the skills outcomes that employers need. Given this, I hope that my noble friend Lord Lucas will feel comfortable in withdrawing his amendment, and that other noble Lords will not feel it necessary to move theirs.

Photo of Lord Lucas Lord Lucas Conservative

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that comprehensive reply. I will start by agreeing with her final words. Let us have qualifications that are clear, where every option is high quality, with employer-led standards and the skills outcomes that employers need. However, whatever language my noble friend dresses this up in, she is saying that the Government intend to abolish BTECs well in advance of having any information to show that T-levels deliver what we all hope they will deliver. Given in particular the effects that my noble friend Lord Baker has outlined on the children we ought to be having most care for—so ought the Government—I very much hope that one of my noble friends, or more of my noble friends than the noble Lord opposite, will choose to move their amendments. As far as my amendment is concerned, I prefer that in the name of my noble friend Lord Baker, so I hope he will consider moving it. However, I will certainly vote for some of the amendments in this group if they are moved to a Division. I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment 27 withdrawn.

Amendment 28 not moved.